Quarterback AJ McCarron has won his grievance against the Bengals and now enters the offseason as an unrestricted free agent.
NFL Network's Ian Rapoport first reported the league's ruling.
The crux of McCarron's grievance was that the Bengals put him on the Non-Football injury list in 2014 to prevent him from accruing a full season, per league regulations, even though he was healthy enough to play. McCarron was put on that list for all but three games; a player needs to play six games to have a year count toward contractual regulations.
If that season had counted as a full season, that would mean McCarron has played four seasons instead of three, as the Bengals asserted. That's crucial, because a player becomes an unrestricted free agent if he has played three years in the league and received a qualifying offer from his team. If a player has played four seasons, he becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of his contract.
So McCarron, a 27-year-old who has said he wants to be a starter and is though to have a realistic chance of becoming one, now has the opportunity to sign with any team without any ties to the Bengals. If he were an unrestricted free agent, the Bengals would've had the opportunity to match any offer sheet McCarron signs with another team. In that hypothetical scenario, if the Bengals match, McCarron has no choice but stay in Cincinnati—where he'd continue to backup Andy Dalton. And if the Bengals refuse to match the offer, they could receive a compensatory draft pick from the team he signs with.
Along with greater freedom going forward, Thursday's ruling comes with an additional financial benefit for McCarron—per Rapoport, he is now owed the salary he didn't receive in 2014, when he was on the Non-Football injury list, plus interest.
McCarron, who guided Alabama to back-to-back national championships, could be a target of teams searching for stability at the quarterback position, such as the Browns, Jets, Cardinals or Broncos. He started three games in 2015 when Dalton went down with an injury and threw for six touchdowns and two interceptions that season, though the Bengals lost in the AFC Wild Card round to the Steelers with him under center. He has not started a game since.